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Where have all the folkies gone?

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Much has been written since Pete Seeger's recent passing; much will no doubt continue to be written in the days to come.

I never met him, nor heard him live in concert. I do remember as a kid the Kingston Trio singing Where Have All the Flowers Gone? and Peter, Paul and Mary's version of If I Had a Hammer.

But I did have one fleeting contact with Seeger about three years ago. At the time, I was researching the life and times of a musician who was rumoured to have once made a banjo for Seeger. I sent an inquiry to Seeger at his home in Beacon, New York, not certain if I would get a reply. A few weeks later, however, a letter arrived. Short and friendly, almost apologetic, he wrote back saying he had no memory of the musician or the instrument.

Seeger's passing gives pause to reflect on the role of music in today's politics and of the distance that the concerns of everyday folk have all but disappeared from public discourse.

Seeger, like his friend, Woodie Guthrie, wrote songs that were often directly political. But more often, he wrote songs about everyday people, their real lives; songs in which they could actually see their experiences reflected. The folk tradition within which Seeger wrote had long, deep roots, of course, going back hundreds of years in Europe and elsewhere, its mirror found in the raw blues of the Mississippi delta.

The end of war in 1945 unleashed a torrent of revolt in favour of an expansion of political, economic, and social rights. A predictable backlash soon followed, however. In the context of the Cold War, right-wing politicians and media elites quickly labeled Seeger and others -- Paul Robeson comes to mind -- as leftist agitators, even communists. Then, as now, the label "leftist" was a convenient stick with which to beat anyone opposing powerful interests.

Seeger's values transcended simple political labels, however. He believed the people deserved justice, a "square deal," in the lingo of pulp writers at the time. He believed the United States was being taken over by political, corporate, and military interests that were opposed to the genuine interests of the people. So he wrote, performed, marched, and protested in favour of civil rights and, later, against the Vietnam War -- indeed, the many wars that his country unwisely stumbled into again and again. And, as several columns have noted, he influenced whole generations of other songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and, later, Bruce Springsteen.

Unfortunately, the times were indeed a-changing, and not altogether for the good. Even into the 1970s, folk music had a place on musical charts. On various radio stations, and on television, folk music could be heard side by side with other genres, including rock and country. Gradually, however, folk music disappeared beneath a wave of popular or "pop" music.

Folk music is not, of course, a static form. Any music -- including blues, rock, country, reggae, or punk -- could be folk, or at least folk-inspired, in the sense of speaking with the voice of the people. And it continues, happily, in small clubs and on street corners and on independent and public radio stations across North America. But the vast majority of radio channels today are corporate entities that play popular music.

The thing about pop music is that it does not even pretend to speak for the people. It is by and large a commercial, mass-produced opiate, test-driven for its musical hooks and electronic gimmickry, and then sold to the public. Pop artists -- Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber among them -- are marketed as originals, but in fact are manufactured like toothpaste; the Spice Girls were assembled to hit all the right demographics.

Occasionally, of course, pop music does pretend to deal with real issues, but this too seems often a marketing ploy. Few pop artists would ever seriously denounce the corporate structure in which they are embedded. When the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines' a few years ago opined that President George W. Bush was a liar and fool, the corporate music industry became apoplectic; the band was banned from popular music stations, and live venues for their music evaporated.

At its best, popular music -- and popular culture in general -- is trivial entertainment. At worst, it is a marketing tool that too often also reinforces sexual, racial, class, and ageist stereotypes. But pop music does something else perhaps even more damaging.

Pop music, in the main, is all about the individual: their problems are their responsibilities. By contrast, folk music brings together the individual with his or her community and society. In the folk tradition, there is no individual problem that is not also, as the American sociologist C. Wright Mills argued, "a political issue." Pete Seeger sang and wrote this truth. His legacy will live on as long as the people have a voice.

When not being a music critic, Trevor W. Harrison is a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 A15

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